mixed feelings

Regents balance praise and criticism in debrief on Common Core forums

Six weeks into Commissioner John King’s high-profile and often contentious meetings across the state focusing on the rollout of Common Core learning standards, state education officials praised—and raised new concerns about—those forums this morning.

At the Board of Regents’ monthly meeting in Albany on Monday, some applauded King for taking time to conduct the forums, which they suggested were often less than civil. “I cannot believe that the commissioner spent so much time away from this office trying to dispel misinformation and trying to explain what we’ve been doing,” said Anthony Bottar, a Regent who represents parts of Central New York.

But statewide, educators, parents and politicians remain divided over pushing forward with the reforms, and those tensions were evident in the room on Monday.

Political pressure to slow down the state’s implementation of the Common Core standards has been growing throughout the fall, sparked largely by the August release of test scores showing huge drops in proficiency on the English (24 points) and math (33 points) elementary and middle school state tests. In New York City, the drops were less severe, with 26 percent of students passing the English tests and just under 30 percent passing math, down from 47 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

That pressure was on display again last week, when state Senator John Flanagan released a report calling for reductions in early grade testing and raising doubts about the credibility of standardized state tests.

On Monday, some Regents directly criticized the public forums. Rochester’s Andrew Brown said that the meetings he attended didn’t include many minorities, which he called “concerning.” Bronx Regent Betty Rosa, whose forum last week was sparsely attended—likely because King did not attend—has been among the most critical board members, saying recently that the state’s policies were being driven by testing that produced “false information.”

To King, Rosa said, “I was really concerned it was our first meeting in the Bronx and you weren’t there, and I would be remiss if I didn’t express my concerns.”

King acknowledged the concerns shared by parents and teachers at the forums. But he said that those were “sometimes based on conflation of the Common Core with lots of other things,” such as testing requirements being imposed as part of new teacher evaluation systems. Other concerns weren’t related to state decisions, but to tests that had been negotiated locally between districts and local unions, he said. (Some have already begun to eliminate those tests after finding them burdensome.)

Untangling those tricky policy distinctions to allay criticism of the Common Core standards was the goal of the community forums when they were planned back in October. A contentious initial forum in Poughkeepsie, and King’s response of canceling future events, then became a national story, forcing officials to organize a new set of meetings that were more on the state’s terms.

King said that the pushback he heard at the public meetings were often in “stark contrast” to what he witnessed in nearby schools, which he said were embracing the standards. “[In] schools, people are, I think, very thoughtfully implementing the work on the Common Core,” King said.

After Monday’s meeting, state teachers union Vice President Maria Neira said she appreciated King taking the initiative to listen to local communities, but was “extremely disappointed by his lack of responsiveness.”

“I was very disappointed to hear how they characterized their listening tour,” Neira said of the Regents conversation.

The discussion also got a bit testy, in comparison to the dry collegiality of a typical Regents meeting. When Westchester’s Harry Phillips repeated his call for the state to acknowledge that it didn’t understand what effect the new cut scores would have on the state’s tests, Binghamton’s James Tallon rebuffed him. He pointed to a summer meeting where officials presented to the board the results from their cut-setting process, which has been scrutinized by some who participated.

“I understand that my dear colleague believes that the board did not fully understand the implication of the test cut scores,” Tallon said. “I just want to indicate that, as one board member, I sat in a meeting in this room with a presentation that was a lengthy presentation on the cut scores.”

Surprising report

EXCLUSIVE: Did online snafus skew Tennessee test scores? Analysts say not much

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will release the results of Tennessee's 2017-18 standardized test this week, but the reliability of those TNReady scores has been in question since this spring's problem-plagued administration of the online exam.

An independent analysis of technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s online testing program this spring is challenging popular opinion that student scores were significantly tainted as a result.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Wednesday that the disruptions to computerized testing had “small to no impact” on scores, based on a monthlong analysis by the Human Resources Research Organization, or HumRRO. The Virginia-based technical group has expertise in psychometrics, the science behind educational assessments.

“We do believe these are valid, reliable scores,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of releasing state- and district-level scores for TNReady, the state’s standardized test in its third year.


Here are five things to know as Tennessee prepares to release TNReady scores


The state hired the research group to scrutinize several issues, including whether frequent online testing snafus made this year’s results unreliable. For instance, during at least seven days out of the three-week testing window, students statewide reported problems logging in, staying online, and submitting their tests — issues that eventually prompted the Legislature to roll back the importance of scores in students’ final grades, teacher evaluations, and school accountability systems.

But the analysis did not reveal a dramatic impact.

“For students who experienced the disruption, the analysis did not find any systematic effect on test scores that resulted from lapses in time between signing in and submitting their tests,” McQueen told Chalkbeat.

There was, however, a “small but consistent effect” if a student had to log on multiple times in order to complete the test, she said.

“When I say small, we’re talking about an impact that would be a handful of scale score points out of, say, a possible 200 or 250 points,” McQueen said.

Analysts found some differences in test score averages between 2017 and 2018 but concluded they were not due to the technical disruptions.

“Plausible explanations could be the students just didn’t know the (academic) standards as well and just didn’t do as well on the test,” McQueen said. “Or perhaps they were less motivated after learning that their scores would not count in their final grades after the legislation passed. … The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation.”

About half of the 600,000 students who took TNReady this year tested with computers, and the other half used paper materials in the state’s transition to online exams. Those testing online included all high school students.

Out of about 502,000 end-of-course tests administered to high schoolers, educators filed about 7,600 irregularity reports – about 1.4 percent – related to problems with test administration, which automatically invalidated those results.

The state asked the analysts specifically to look at the irregularity reports for patterns that could be cause for concern, such as demographic shifts or excessive use of invalidations. They found none.

TNReady headaches started on April 16 – the first day of testing – when students struggled to log on. More problems emerged during the weeks that followed until technicians finally traced the issues to a combination of “bugs in the software” and the slowness of a computerized tool that helps students in need of audible instructions. At one point, officials with testing company Questar blamed a possible cyberattack for shutting down its online platform, but state investigators later dismissed that theory.

While this year’s scores officially are mostly inconsequential, McQueen emphasized Wednesday that the results are still valuable for understanding student performance and growth and analyzing the effectiveness of classroom instruction across Tennessee.

“TNReady scores should be looked at just like any data point in the scheme of multiple data points,” she said. “That’s how we talk about this every year. But it’s an important data point.”

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.